Archive for Ethics

The Limits Of Justice

Posted in Agathos, Ethics, Homeric, Stoicism with tags , , , on December 22, 2011 by Joe Callahan

The news here in the Boston area has been reporting the end to a two decade mystery. In 1992 a young woman was murdered in her home by an intruder. She was repeatedly stabbed and left for dead. The woman, Kathleen Dempsey, was still conscious and called 911. A dispatcher decided for some unfathomable reason to treat it as a hoax. After five hours or so the authorities arrived too late and found her dead. Now after nineteen years the police have reported they know who did it.

This was striking news to me because I knew Kathy quite well. She was a good friend and a kind spirit. I was very fond of her. It was a very difficult time for many people within a mutual circle of friends. The brutal nature of her death and the knowledge that nobody had been caught has always remained in the back of my mind.

Now that finally her killer has been discovered the news often refers to justice. I’m finding myself strangely dissatisfied. The killer is a nasty specimen already in prison for the murder of another woman. So he will get more jail time? Is that it? Is that justice? His picture has appeared in some news reports and I am not ashamed to say my first impulse was to want his sorry carcass hanging from a yardarm.

The purpose of this blog has been to explore the idea of Agathos, what is “good” in the sense of what is worthy, a fully human life. The earliest primal foundations of Agathos come from Homer’s epics. The measure of justice in that worldview is clear. When Achilles’ cousin and companion Patroclus was slain by Hector, Achilles in turn slew Hector. In his rage and grief Achilles tied Hector’s corpse to the back of his chariot and dragged it around the city of Troy a few times. It has its appeal.

The problem is that 20 years ago the main suspicion for this murder fell on another man. I certainly thought he did it. Many others did too. There were some compelling reasons for believing this individual was guilty. If it turns out that he was indeed innocent then some act of vendetta would have been unjustified and only added an additional tragic note. It is a sobering thought. I suppose that is why over the centuries we have decided to be a society of laws and be less quick (more or less) to reach for the proverbial sword.

As Greek philosophy progressed, the idea of human virtue became more balanced. Courage and justice came to sit alongside wisdom and moderation as the big four. Aristotle came to the conclusion that people perform bad acts out of a combination of ignorance and/or irrational desires. The bad man is deficient in some way. This is thankfully not some religious dictum calling us to simply turn the other cheek. However, understanding that ignorance or imbalance is what leads people to do ill seems to require some degree of restrain if not compassion. It is needed if we, ourselves, want to be balanced individuals. Engaging in some vengeful act of retaliation may only compound our miseries and lead us to bad, unworthy actions of our own. Socrates and later the Stoics told us that while others can do us injury they cannot truly harm us if they cannot make us abandon our character, our virtues, our choice to be Agathos.

It all makes sense but its a hard bit of medicine to swallow. So what do we do with someone like the SOB currently sitting in jail?

It may not be the course of wisdom or moderation to seek retribution. Maybe its not really our place to put this guy down like a rabid dog. However it is certainly right for us to prevent ill from occurring. If we cannot stop it from happening initially then we stop it from happening again. If such an abhorrent act could be prevented in the moment with everything including lethal force then I can’t think of a single valid ethical objection. Every martial tradition I have practiced teaches that the individual has the right to self-defense even if we do not seek or wish to do harm. After the fact, maybe preventing ill means keeping him where he is no longer threat. Maybe some compassionate soul can help him out of his ignorance and illness. It sure as hell wouldn’t be me. I’m a Stoic not a saint.

I don’t have a good simple clean solution. There isn’t one. There is pretty much just the realization that what was done cannot be undone. We engage in damage control and comfort the living. Its a hard lesson that we cannot control or fix or change everything. We can only choose our responses, stop the ills we can stop, live as fully and well as we are able and aid others in doing the same.

I have thought of Kathy often over the years and I am glad to see at least a potential end to uncertainty. It may bring some modicum of peace to her family and friends. For myself, after twenty years I am less the rageful Achilles seeking heroic justice and maybe have a tiny bit more wisdom and moderation. But I am still saddened.

Fortunes Lost And Won Again

Posted in Agathos, Ethics, Philosophy with tags , , on June 17, 2011 by Joe Callahan

The other night I was out grabbing a quick bite at a place I frequent and was seated some distance from the bar.  Since it was a game of the Boston/Vancouver hockey playoffs that meant there weren’t too many people nearby.  The sound level was much lower than usual.  At another table were two men, one in his late twenties or early thirties.  The other gentleman was much older, in his seventies would be my guess.  The younger man was dressed in khakis and a polo shirt.  The older, silver haired man wore a jacket and tie.

I confess to shameless eavesdropping but in my own defense there really wasn’t much else going on.  At first I thought the older man was a relative, possibly a grandfather.  It became clear that wasn’t the case.  Somebody somewhere had asked this man to talk to this younger fellow.

The topic was business and, in this case, a failing enterprise.  The younger man talked (far too much) about his company’s wonderfully promising design for something that would revolutionize something or other.  He had joined this company early and become part of the entourage of its entrepreneurial chief.   The chief had managed to blow a large sum of investor cash on lots of sushi and drinks for everyone.  This young man had moved to Boston and had a young wife and a mortgage and blah blah blah.  You can guess the story.  Now he was contemplating taking out a loan to join some others in buying out this company headed into bankruptcy.

The older man was extremely patient and provided some advice as well as humor while they spoke and ate.  He pointed out that he had known a lot of men through the years that had made fortunes and then lost them and then worked to make them back.  It happens.  C’est la guerre.  In a kindly way the older man was telling polo shirt boy that it was far from clear he was ready or able to be one of those men.

Polo shirt boy didn’t get it.  At one point the younger man stated that it would be nice if they could just stabilize the company so he didn’t have to work sixty to seventy hours a week.  This very dignified older man said simply “I still work sixty hours a week”.

Insert whatever sound effect you like here…… breaking glass, a needle across a vinyl record, the distinct smack of a bitch slap.  It all works.  You had to be there I guess but even I felt like a lame punk and I wasn’t the young guy who just put his foot in his mouth.   For a moment I felt like I should either applaud or commit seppuku with my butter knife.   You can trust my instincts or not but I feel confident that this guy wasn’t working in his seventies because he needed the cash.  It was just what one ought to do.  While I sat there pretending not to listen and sucking back my second martini I was strongly reminded of a quote I first encountered way back when I was in college.

“A general of great merit should be said to be a man who has recovered from at least one great defeat.”—Asakura Norikage (1474-1555)

Asakura Norikage was a samurai general of the Asakura clan during the warring states period.  He was not an armchair theorist.  He commanded and fought in a number of campaigns.  Noted for intellectual as well as military accomplishments, he eventually became a monk and took the name Soteki.  He came out of retirement and led an army again before falling ill and dying at 78.  He worked sixty hours a week too I suspect.  I doubt he wished for an easier life.

Is that what Agathos requires?  Is it the ability to get up again and again?  To recover from defeat in order to be a person of merit?  I think that is at least part of it.  Whatever the case, the fates put me there to get that good swift kick in the ass.  I don’t know if polo shirt boy got the lesson.  I certainly did.

An Interesting Look At A Role Model

Posted in Agathos, arete, Ethics, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on February 11, 2011 by Joe Callahan

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

I’ve been preoccupied elsewhere this week and haven’t written much of anything. So, I’ll let someone else do the talking. I came across the lecture posted below that someone loaded on YouTube. The speaker is Professor Michael Sugrue, who has been a lecturer in history and philosophy at Princeton and currently at Ave Maria. His topic is Stoicism, specifically the figure of Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor (considered one of the few good ones) and a practitioner of Stoicism. He is best known for his “Meditations” which was really a personal journal where he reminds himself of the ideas that sustain him. It was never intended for public consumption.

I first encountered Meditations years ago as a student long before really considering Stoicism as a living practice. I confess I have given the good emperor scant attention compared to one of the other great surviving Stoic voices, Epictetus. Since Epictetus was an actual teacher of Stoic philosophy I was more inclined to turn to his words. After listening to this lecture and also recently reading some of Pierre Hadot’s thoughts on the subject I’ve been giving Meditations some renewed attention. Its also true that Marcus Aurelius penned one of my all-time favorite passages:

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes you can – if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.”

– Gregory Hays translation

One of the most compelling ideas presented by Sugrue is how much Marcus Aurelius stands as a role model.  Marcus not only studied Stoicism but he lived it.  He “walked the walk” while facing the enormous pressures and temptations of absolute power.    If you find this sort of thing at all interesting I recommend checking out the lecture.  The first part is background information but as it goes the character study is very well done.

Does Luxury Turn You Into A Jerk?

Posted in Agathos, arete, Ethics, Homeric, Philosophy, Stoicism with tags , , , on February 2, 2011 by Joe Callahan

Probably a jerk........

I recently came across an article in the Harvard Business School Journal entitled The Devil Wears Prada? Effects of Exposure to Luxury Goods on Cognition and Decision Making”. It discusses an ongoing study into the effects of luxury on decision making, a subject of some interest in these days of economic turmoil and bloated executive compensation. Its worth reading if you enjoy such things. The quick, bare bones version is that exposure to luxury (the perks that come with wealth and power) makes people measurably less likely to take the well-being of others into account and likely to be more self-interested. For instance, the decision to continue an environmentally damaging policy or lay off a horde of workers for extra profit margin is more likely to be chosen when the discussion takes place in luxurious surroundings. Its worth noting that the study did not find that luxury made people actively malicious. It simply notes they just don’t give as much of a damn about the unwashed masses (or the semi-washed for that matter). Luxury does not appear to promote evil. It just turns you into a jerk.

Anyone who has worked in the corporate world has probably observed all this without needing a Harvard study. Still, I think its valuable to have it quantified and the proverbial cards put out on the table. It raises some interesting questions about leadership in our society. More to the point for my purposes in this blog, what effect does luxury have on becoming άγαθός (agathos)?

Full Disclosure: I like many luxuries just fine. Finances permitting, I’ve been known to frequent places like Boston’s Oak Bar and drink overpriced scotch without feeling even the remotest sense of concern for the rest of humanity….or the planet….and your little dog too. However, that indulgence needs to be tempered with the qualities and virtues of the Agathos. My personal experience has been that luxury needs to be balanced and “detoxed” with Askesis.

What do the ideas of Arete and Agathos tell us about the effect luxury may have on us? Would some Greek or Roman say that luxury will turn you into a jerk (and a soft one at that)?

Probably not so much of a jerk.

When we look back to the virtues of the Homeric epics as a foundational proto-ethics there is no question that we are looking at an aristocratic ethos. To be clear and fair it has to be acknowledged that the Agathoi were not the everyday men on the street. They were the nobility and enjoyed privileges. In that early Bronze Age economy being noble didn’t bring all that many luxuries but the Homeric heroes were at the top of whatever heap there was. Certainly they made a great fuss over possessing the finest armor and chariots and such. Did having the pick of wine, women and implements of destruction make them into jerks? It seems to have varied. I think its safe to say that Agamemnon was a jerk. His self-interest and arrogance are clear. Achilles is described much more favorably as a leader and shows greater concern for those around him. Still, when he gets into a snit over prestige and the loss of his girl-toy he is willing to put the entire Greek expedition into jeopardy. That is a jerk move to be sure. Odysseus was a little more down to earth but it has to be noted his men would never have been lost at sea with him and ultimately killed had he not annoyed the god Poseidon. His crime? Hubris, extreme arrogance. It didn’t help that he stabbed Poseidon’s son in his only eye.

Position, power, luxury, perks. Maybe Lord Acton’s dictum is true and power really does tend to corrupt? As always, I end up turning to the Stoics. If Homer gives us a proto-ethics then the Stoics give us the refined product. Did they condemn luxury and warn against its degenerative powers? Not exactly. Some of the Stoic writers whose works survive were wealthy men with all the attendant perks. Some were not. What they all espoused was the idea that attachment to wealth, luxury and power is an absolute killer to virtue. If you can acquire and have such things in your life without compromising your reason, your integrity, your freedom then by all means do so. If the good life is defined by the cultivation of Arete (Excellence) then the material outcome is really neither here nor there.

I think that is probably the real answer to the quandary. What keeps luxury from turning you into a jerk? You just can’t care about it that much. It is nice but if you wish to be Agathos it just isn’t that important. Odysseus, despite some aristocratic jerk behavior, learns this lesson on his long, long journey home when he is reduced to a shipwrecked pauper. Ironically, Zeno of Citium the founder of Stoicism came to Athens because he was a shipwrecked merchant and stayed to study philosophy. The recognition of how little control we truly have over our material lives is a crucial understanding. Maybe that experience and recognition would temper the tendencies illustrated by that Harvard Biz School study.

Giving Homer a Second Chance

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 27, 2010 by Joe Callahan

At some point in your high school or college days we may have shared a common experience.  Some teacher decided it was time to plunge into those vast wordy epics of Homer; The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Chances are you didn’t thank them for it at the time.  Aside from school days very few of us ever go back to explore those epics except maybe the painfully inaccurate film “Troy” (yeah I know it was fun to watch Orlando Bloom get smacked around but the movie was still all wrong).  Of course these epic poems were originally recited and listened to in conjunction with wine drinking; not read as an assignment.  They were a kind of ritual theatre where long familiar stories were recounted.  In doing so, there was a cultural understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly that was affirmed and offered as ideal and inspiration.

Fair enough but that still doesn’t mean many people will read them for fun today.  They won’t find anything relevant for their own lives in the archaic principles of chariot jockeys.  Will they?

Homer did not survive the centuries simply to torment students.  The epics are woven into the basic fabric of our cultural consciousness and they continue to challenge us and guide beliefs about ourselves even when we do not realize the source.  They have shaped history in the West.  Alexander the Great got himself badly wounded in Persia trying to emulate Achilles on the battlefield.  The Romans so badly wanted a link to the tradition that they decided their ancient forbear was Aeneas, a survivor of the sack of Troy.  Medieval knights, never the most literate bunch, at least learned the Iliad as part of their education.  Renaissance poets reused the names of Greek heroes.  Warships and sports teams were named after them.  A condom was named for the Trojans, presumably invoking strength and prowess.  It wasn’t very reverent perhaps but at least it shows that the cultural memory remains.

If there is any doubt that the virtues and vices of the Iliad are still part of our psychology we have only to look at the work of writers like Dr. Jonathan Shay.  His comparison of Achilles and Odysseus to the difficult experiences of modern soldiers shows the Homeric world is not as far away as we might choose to think.

That is why it is unfortunate when we dismiss the Homeric epics as fossilized remains fit only for core English Lit requirements and recycling into sanitized Hollywood pap.  We cannot move on to more “sophisticated” systems of philosophy until we recognize and reconcile ourselves to our primal origins.  We can try of course.  People have wanted to put the Homeric hero into the proverbial dustbin as far back as ancient Greece itself.  Plato decried the Iliad as unfit reading, teaching men to be ruled by ungoverned passions and appetites.  Then again, Plato brought us the original ivory tower in the form of his Academy.  He also catered largely to the sons of the privileged elite of Athens.  So, we may want to take such dismissal from whence it comes.  Anybody who really thought society should be governed by leisured intellectuals should be looked at with as much suspicion as a militarist.

Simply, you cannot pretend you have risen above that bloody charioteer in your psyche until you can grapple with both his virtues and vices.  Snubbing the men of bronze when planning your next dinner party will not suffice.  They have a way of kicking in the door to your thoughts and impulses at the most inconvenient times.  Within the Homeric epics lies a proto-ethics that still must be recognized as valid even if politically incorrect.  We may build upon it and make choices in different directions but the proto-ethics remains our foundation and it is inherently good.  Arete, fueled by courage, fortitude, intelligence and judgment, is a good goal.  A life lived for that alone, tempered by the sense of honor and fairness demanded of the Achaeans and Trojans, would not be totally misspent.  We have all seen far worse.

Of course this still doesn’t make reading the epics less dry.  My solution?  Books on CD.  Having them recited to you is almost like the original experience of the ancient Greeks.  Just add wine.

In Praise of Morbid Contemplation

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 15, 2010 by Joe Callahan

If you do some Google searching on the internet for phrases like “morbid thinking” or “thinking about death” you’re quickly going to get the message that you need psychiatric intervention and drugs, lots of drugs.  Thinking about one’s impending mortality is generally seen as an unhealthy activity.  Interestingly this is not the case when one searches under “contemplating death”.  Contemplation of death gets a far more considered and less pharmaceutical treatment.  The distinction between the two is that contemplation is a more conscious and controlled activity than mere swirling thoughts which stray into obsession.  Contemplation to the Greeks and Romans came from the idea of taking something into a separate space (con meaning with and templum describing separation like the sacred space of a temple).  To contemplate was to study something in a removed, aware and focused state.

We all have thoughts and feelings whether we wish them or not.  Alternatively, contemplation is an activity we must choose and practice.   Mortality is something we emotionally prefer to avoid dwelling on.  Unless we or someone close to us is forced to face death then it is a topic many prefer to keep in the abstract and in the future.  Unfortunately for the individual who would be Agathos this avoidance of reality is not useful.

Many cultural traditions have taught a resolute acceptance of death.  Sometimes this was due to a cultural milieu where death occurred with great regularity and its reality was difficult to avoid.  It would have been pretty hard to ride with Genghis Khan and not have some awareness of mortality.  Usually, contemplation of life’s inevitable end served the productive purpose of valuing life in the present moment.  Once one recognizes that everything is inherently impermanent one more fully experiences the present.  We become less attached to fantasies of a future that does not exist and may never come to pass.

Eastern traditions like Buddhism cultivated this awareness through meditation on impermanence.  This practice carried into the martial sphere via ideals like Bushido where contemplation of mortality helped to eliminate hesitation and fear.  If life is transient then to hurl oneself into battle and attain glory was like the brief but beautiful flowering of the cherry blossom (their analogy, not mine).

In the West the martial tradition stretching back to the heroes of the Iliad shares that Carpe Diem attitude.  While it would later be altered by Christianity, the earlier belief that a good death may be the only lasting tribute endures in the back of our psyches.  Beyond that, the Greek and Roman Stoics believed in contemplating impermanence as a philosophical tool.  While today we hear a great deal about positive visualization the Stoics advocated a kind of negative visualization.  The Stoics taught seeing things as they are.  That includes their impermanence.  Recognizing that nothing and nobody lasts forever makes us value what is in our lives while it lasts.  It also prepares us more thoroughly to endure inevitable change and loss.  Negative visualization teaches us how to maintain an emotional and philosophical center.  It grants us tranquility while also reminding us to live fully and well.

How would each of us live tomorrow if we really did keep impermanence in mind and recognized truly that it might be our last day?  What would be different in our actions? The Roman emperor and Stoic writer Marcus Aurelius may have said it best

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.  Free yourself from all other distractions.  Yes, you can – if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override your mind, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.  You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?  If you can manage it, that is all even the gods will ask.”